Thursday, 3 July 2008

George Ttoouli Has Visions

Visions of the City II @ The Bishopsgate Institute, London, 3/7/08

Given Chris McCabe's prevalence, I finally found him reading at an event in a place beyond the immanent. Visions of the City II featured Hannah Silva, Tom Chivers (resident poet @ the Bishopsgate Institute and host), Chris McCabe and Iain Sinclair, reading in that order. To get it out of the way, and because I couldn't ignore it, the space was absolutely wonderful and the event beautifully timed and designed.

But being a mug, I turned up fifteen minutes late and missed Hannah Silva. My experience of the evening was therefore of the three men only; i.e. that of a testosterone-fuelled harnessing of London’s feminised territory to a marauding male aesthetic. (Allegedly.) No doubt it would have been peachier if I’d caught the full quartet, but that’s what I experienced, and that’s what you’ll have to settle for.*

The consistent thread between the three poets was that of recording experience and place simultaneously; and, as often happens with this kind of psychogeography**, a defamiliarisation-so-as-to-bring-you-closer-to-the-essence-of-the-place through the poet's language and imagery.

In a prose piece by Tom, Liverpool Street Station arrives flat-packed from, no doubt, the Ikea of Psychogeographopolis (early version here, the recent one was published as a poster-pull-out in the Edgeless Shape). Whereas the men in Chris’ London were as tall or short as their capitalist status allowed: his marxist-working-class-not-really-a-persona was dwarfed by bankers and policemen on packed out tube carriages.

Iain Sinclair was another consistent thread: the younger poets both name-checked him in epigrams and referenced him indirectly in their sets, and he danced like a crazy minstrel on their poetics. Formally for Tom this manifested in lists, catalogues, especially of road names. St Botolph's popped twice, once in Tom’s reading, once in Iain's.*** Chris read extracts from a blog project, The True History of the Working Class, which was akin to ripping off his shirt to show a tattoo of Iain Sinclair gurning on his chest. But funnier.

All three tapped into comedy at some point in their readings - Tom's sardonic wit created a sense of a London which was always out to crap on his shoulder and Iain delivered jovial rubrics inbetween his creative pieces. The funniest moment of the event was an accidental spoonerism: Iain's "city shoals"**** inverted to a, "though true, inappropriate description."

The reason I’ve highlighted the comic element is because of a vibe I started getting at some point during Iain’s (wonderful) final set. The poet-archivist's role, or the psychogeographer's role, seems to veer into a dry territory very easily. Maybe it’s because it's heavy work, this kind of poetry, at heart, even though the selection seemed pitched digestibly in terms of length and sampling. There’s a need to throw in some light relief at some point.

Is it the pressure on the wordsmith to 'do justice to' the subject, that demands an urgent, serious tone, first of all, which the poet then has to deviate from? I’m not sure. Glancing back at early practitioners, poets like Edward Carpenter, for example, or perhaps Walt Whitman to some extent, there’s a need to take oneself seriously, else the grandness of the vision might just fall apart into a randomised list. So the poet has to keep the tone strong and hypnotic, urgent and serious, else the importance of the individual’s experience of a place might not be believed, or held up to the light for scrutiny.

Or is it just me? I can't say I have the lineage, of who begat [...] who begat Sinclair who begat Chivers and McCabe. There must be some funny psychogeographical poems about, ones that stress the irreverent above all. The love-hate relationship between a poet and place, but delivered on the scale and with the grandness of vision that Iain has for East London. That, I think, is what set his work apart on the night: that he turns his subject to the light, again and again, and never finds his responses exhausted by the examination. That, too is what set him apart from the younger generation – stamina, or perhaps simply more time to write. But that’s another discussion.

Incidentally, Iain’s final gobbet was telling on this subject. While browsing the shelves of the fantastic collection at the Bishopsgate before his reading, he stumbled across a book called Death Dictionary: Over 5,500 Clinical, Legal, Literary and Vernacular Terms. The brief encounter and extract he read sealed the night beautifully, but he had turned away from his own work.

Tom Chivers runs penned in the margins and has a blog, thisisyogic.

Chris McCabe has a previous collection from Salt, The Hutton Inquiry.

Iain Sinclair name-checked his latest manuscript/work in progress, which is almost finished, but all I caught of the title were the words 'blood' and 'Hackney'. It's a kind of memoir spanning forty years of his life there. There's also The Verbals, Iain Sinclair in conversation with Kevin Jackson (Worple Press, 2003).

* If Hannah Silva reads this and decides she wants to set the index card straight, she’s welcome to send some poems, a complaint, verbal abuse, or ASCII flowers.

** Yeah, why am I so uncomfortable about calling their poetry psychogeography, straight up? Maybe because it’s one of those terms that seems to have been downloaded to do a box-job on a kind of poetry that relies on open field’s legacy more than the closed-shop analyses of, say Ruth Padel’s poetry, or Sean O’Brien’s, or [insert endless list of mainstream poetry].

*** As a North Londoner, the East Londoner emphasis to the night all kind of washed over me. It may as well have been Timbuktu, or Swindon. Don't get me wrong, my dad grew up in Dagenham and I still have family down there, but everything was boarded up last time I went, even the sewers. (OK, I made that up.)

**** Do I really have to spell it out for you? Try saying it quickly ten times, after a large tumbler of London Dry Gin. You’ll see.

P.S. I am considering a follow up post to this: Compilation of New Terms for Death. Possibly if we get enough suggestions on email, I'll start it. Possibly though, the idea needs to be terminated.


Tom said...

George, thank you for your extremely accurate and sensitive review of the night (minus Hannah, of course, which is a pity - she's great and very, very different). I think your observations are spot-on, and I agree with your point and comedy/lightness as a necessary counterweight to the grandeur and seriousness of the 'poetic project'. I wonder if this also applies to poets who write in a more conventional, lyrical manner?

Speaking for myself, I'm obviously influenced by Iain's work, but also stuff like William Carlos Williams' Paterson (if we're talking about projects), which manages light touch, stamina and seriousness all at once. For Chris, as me, Barry MacSweeney's another touchstone. In fact, probably for Iain too. Barry's poetry (and performances) certainly fused wit, political fire, bombast and the lyric voice.

I hope the readings managed to capture the spirit of place (in this instance, yes, East London), but also to transcend specifics. To some extent anyway.

There's a video sample of Iain's reading at and more on YouTube (just search for Bishopsgate)

Tom x

The Editors said...

George, I was interested by your footnote about resisting the term 'psychogeography', because of it's rather all-purpose use. I would add that I think it's at least in part due to the fact that the American poetics of the Black Mountain school - the open field poetics of which psychogeography is a partial offshoot - have never really been understood or discussed in vast swathes of British poetry criticism. Donald Davie, for one, in 'Thomas Hardy and British Poetry', sidelines the American open field influence on JH Prynne and Roy Fisher in favour of trying to fit them into an English line running back through Larkin and Hardy. It's part-way convincing, but indicative of a broader distrust or dismissal of American poetics when it comes to a consideration of British poetry. It's odd, in some ways, because Iain Sinclair himself has done a great deal to try and get Olsonian poetics on the BritPo agenda (Olson crops up a lot in his books, as do many of the mainstays of the British Poetry Revival), but this doesn't seem to have affected the little Englander mentality of much poetry criticism, in spite of the fact that Sinclair is by no means unread. I guess psychogeography as a critical term is often a means of considering alternative poetics and aesthetics, without having to worry about engaging with the depper history of American poetics. This is probably all better discussed in a future essay, though.